The Bible’s Answer to the Problem of Sexism (Part 1)

The Bible’s Answer to the Problem of Sexism (Part 1) June 3, 2014

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog, or follow him on Twitter at @JasonBilbrey. 

I’m not very active on Twitter, but even I couldn’t remain ignorant of the hashtag #YesAllWomen that catalyzed national (and international) dialogue on gender relations last weekend in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. While my understanding of the problem was broadened by the sheer number of contributions from women all over the world, one tweet in particular actually amended my personal definition of sexism:

“‘I have a boyfriend’ is the easiest way to get a man to leave you alone. Because he respects another man more than you. #yesallwomen” (from @JBRylah).

I know this tweet is painting with pretty broad strokes, but it highlights an aspect of sexism that goes beyond objectification. It’s about ownership. It’s about territory. It’s about men becoming possessors, and women becoming possessions.

The Bible, perhaps unsurprisingly, is full of examples. Exhibit A: “Thou shalt not covet.” This is the tenth commandment in its abbreviated form, which, let’s face it, is better for Sunday School posters. It also also gives the Ten Commandments an air of universality. They seem timeless and true for all ages. But the unabridged version chips away at this perception:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, NIV).

All of a sudden, the Ten Commandments don’t seem so timeless. They assume a male audience, and list a male neighbor’s wife among his other possessions (like his slaves, tellingly). Coveting, within this context, is not synonymous with lusting or objectifying. Coveting is not an offense against the woman, but against her husband. Nor is it a matter of the heart, but a matter of keeping community peace, much like “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” or “You shall not steal.”

To talk about women so nonchalantly in the context of property rights is jarring to us today. The blunt truth is women were indeed seen as property in many ancient patriarchal societies. And the Bible’s role in either propagating or merely reflecting this reality is worthy of a hundred books, not just one blog post. But I would argue what seems, from our vantage point, to be abhorrently backward might have been fairly progressive for its time.

Like being forced to marry your rapist. It’s hard to find an example more offensive to our modern sensibilities than the law outlined in Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

There’s so much going on in this text, it’s hard to know where to start. If this reads like tacit approval of rape to you, I won’t argue. The powerlessness of the woman being molested is compounded by her powerless in the economic transaction to follow. One day she is the property of her father, and the next she is violently possessed and purchased by another man. Her value is in her virginity, which literally has a price: fifty shekels of silver. Of course, the woman isn’t paid any of it (as if she were the owner of her own body), and must live the rest of her life married to her rapist. This scenario is so bleak it’s easy to miss what the purpose of this law is, which is (and stay with me here) to protect women.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at how this played out with Tamar in II Samuel 13. Tamar had a stalker, her own brother Amnon. One day, Tamar gets word Amnon is sick and wants her to come to his tent and make him some food. The whole time she’s baking bread, Amnon watches her like a creep. He sends everyone else out of the tent. He wants her to hand feed him in bed. Then, of course, he rapes her.

The most remarkable part of the story is Tamar’s response when Amnon is finished with her and tells her to get out: “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me” (II Sam. 13:16). Why on earth would she say something like that? How does she not find her brother so repulsive that she runs as soon as she has the chance?

Here’s why: In a society where women are possessions, they can be thrown away when they lose their value. Tamar losing her virginity outside this system of property transaction places her in a position of incredible economic vulnerability. And the story unfortunately verifies that risk, ending with Amnon’s refusal to marry her, and Tamar living the rest of her life “a desolate woman.”

Perhaps the law closest to “marry your rape victim” is “marry your dead brother’s widow” (Deut 25:5, obviously paraphrased). In both cases, they are concerned with protecting women in danger of having no place in society. That’s the dramatic tension that drives the account of Ruth and Naomi, for example. Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, have no business surviving in a patriarchal society after their husbands die. But they do. It seems that they also have no business having their own book of the Bible, told from their perspective. But they do.

I’d argue that there’s a subtle disruption of gender hierarchy at work here in the Old Testament–in the laws, in the stories. But it’s way too subtle. It need to be more explicit, and with the coming of Jesus, it will be. If much of the Old Testament worked within this system of oppression to advocate for women, the New Testament works to dismantle the system entirely.

But that’s part 2. I hope you’ll join me then.

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  • Peter Marin

    loved your explanations as they clearly and concisely walk the reader through an excellent, brilliant, insightful analysis.